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The art world faces its challenges

ATHENS – Should the British Museum return ancient sculptures known as the Parthenon marbles to Greece? Does the art world contribute to global warming? Is the hot market for digital art known as NFT over?

These are among the most troublesome challenges facing the art world today, particularly the question of how – or even if – to return what many consider plundered art, such as the Parthenon marbles, to its rightful owners.

These issues and more were vigorously debated last week at the Art for Tomorrow conference in Athens, a three-day gathering of art administrators, artists, cultural entrepreneurs, gallery owners and collectors held in association with the New York Times. Highlighted guests included artist Jeff Koons, who talked about sending his latest creations to the moon with the help of Elon Musk’s SpaceX; Brian Donnelly, better known as Kaws, who recalled his beginnings as a graffiti artist; and Greek billionaire entrepreneur Dimitris Daskalopoulos, who reflected on his recent donation of more than 350 works to museums, including the Guggenheim and the Tate.

Fittingly, the question of restitution was deliberated in front of the 2,500-year-old Parthenon on the terrace of the Acropolis Museum, home to about half of the surviving marble sculptures that were part of the original Parthenon frieze. The others are in the British Museum, after Lord Elgin, Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (which ruled Greece at the time) had them removed two centuries ago.

Greece’s claims for marbles were unsuccessful because the British Museum is prohibited from giving away any collectible items. But last week, museum president George Osborne said, “I think there is a deal to be made” – under which the marbles could be shown in both London and Athens – as long as there wasn’t “a load of preconditions.” “or” a load of red lines.

Since then, numerous British lawmakers have told a Greek newspaper that the marbles should be returned, and on Monday a group of scholars and advocates of returning the sculptures demonstrated at the British Museum.

Greece did not officially respond to the conference to Mr. Osborne. Instead, the director general of the Acropolis Museum, Nikolaos Stampolidis, released a statement, read in his absence, in which he described the Parthenon marbles as representatives of a procession that symbolized Athenian democracy.

“The violent removal of half of the frieze from the Parthenon can be conceived, in reality, as setting aside, dividing and uprooting half the participants in an actual procession, and keeping them prisoners in a foreign land,” Stampolidis said in his statement. . “It consists in the depredation, in the interruption, in the division and in the abandonment of the idea of ​​democracy”.

“The question arises: who owns the ‘prisoners?'” He asked. “The museum where they are imprisoned, or the place where they were born?”

While the British Museum was not represented on the panel, Victoria & Albert Museum director Tristram Hunt, one of the speakers, explained the legal ban on returning items.

He said the law was introduced because until the late 1970s, “so much was destroyed and given away” by museum administrators, including African furniture and design works that were thought to be “worthless” and plaster casts. of South Asian Monuments and Sculptures.

Today, new legislation on the restitution of cultural heritage was not a priority for politicians or voters, said Hunt, who was once a member of Parliament. Instead, museums like hers were working with pretending governments to “think about how we share these collections,” even as part of long-term loans, even though the governments in question said, “You want us to borrow things from you. what has he stolen from us? “

A fellow speaker, British writer Tiffany Jenkins, defended the status quo. Keeping half of the marbles in Athens and the other half in London was her, she said, “a really good situation”.

“Here, you can see them in the context of pre-classical Athens,” he said, “and also look at the Acropolis and think, ‘God, that’s where they really were.'” At the British Museum, “you can see them in the context of world civilizations”.

“This seems to me to be an advantage for everyone,” he added.

Among the other issues addressed at the conference was the future of NFTs – digital certificates of ownership and authenticity that are valued in cryptocurrencies and stored on the blockchain.

NFTs have been a highly traded art market commodity since March 2021, when Mike Winkelmann, better known as the digital artist Beeple, sold one for $ 69.3 million at a Christie’s online auction. By the end of that year, the market capitalization of NFTs had risen from $ 400 million to $ 16.7 billion.

In recent weeks, however, cryptocurrencies have been in free fall, eroding the value of the digital works of art connected to them. And NFTs are facing criticism for their carbon footprint: According to research from the University of Cambridge, mining Bitcoin (the leading cryptocurrency) consumes more energy in a year than Pakistan.

The three NFT panel speakers – all engaged in the creation or transaction of the medium – defended it as a legitimate artistic pursuit rather than as a way to generate easy money.

“We are a company at the end of the day and our bottom line is to make money, but one of the main reasons we got involved in the space was not to make money – it was for the benefit of our artists,” said Christiana. Ine – Kimba Boyle, Pace Gallery Online Sales Director.

Given the few opportunities historically available in the traditional art market, he said, NFTs have been “an opportunity to allow our artists to offer works to a different market, at a lower price, which also grows their communities. “.

He cited the example of artist John Gerrard, who had 196 unique NFTs of his work published in editions. While these didn’t represent astounding figures, they were still “volume,” he said.

Mazdak Sanii, CEO and co-founder of Avant Arte, a creative marketplace, explained that “the hype has certainly sparked a lot of interest in this space.” Yet there was also “something deeper going on” in terms of an artistic community connecting talents to collectors.

Kenny Schachter, an NFT artist, writer, and collector, has dismissed allegations that NFTs were more polluting than shipping art and the private jets used to take ultra-wealthy collectors to art fairs. He said cryptocurrencies were “on the verge of a great transformation” when carbon neutral forms of them emerge.

As for plummeting prices, they may have a silver lining.

“The cryptocurrency market has collapsed 80% more in the past seven months and I welcome that,” he said. “Let it dry out all the excessive lather and speculation, crime and scams.

“People who care about art, doing things and expressing themselves will remain standing,” he added.

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